You’re HOW old???

Me: Height doesn’t have anything to do with age. Most of you are taller than me, but I’m twice as old as all of you.
Boy 1: What? How old are you?
Me: I’m 36.
Six kids: What? No way!
Boy 2: I thought you were 29!
Me: No. I’m 36.
Boy 2: Really??? Someone told me you were 29.
Me: No. I’m really 36.
Girl: What year were you born?
Me: 1981.
Girl: Shit. Yeah, well, I guess that really is 36 years ago. The oldest I would have guessed you at is 32.
Me: Thanks, but no, I’m really 36.
Boy 1: Snap! You’re only 24 years away from being 50! That’s so old!
Me: I’m actually only 14 years away from being 50.
Boy 1: What? That’s even worse!
Boy 3: My dad just turned 36 a few days ago.
Me: Cool. Well, I guess me and your dad have something in common.
Boy 1: Oh my god! Fourteen years away from FIFTY! Don’t you hate being so old?
Me: Nope, I don’t really mind it. I’ve gotten used to it, really. Just one year at a time.
Boy 2: Yeah, that’s not too bad, being 36. It means you’re smart. You know, wise.
Girl [laughing, clearly making fun of the boys]: Yeah, Ms. H. You’re wise because you’re so old.

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In my study hall, I have a second teacher in there with me. Recently, she had a conversation with a student who was learning about the early foundation of the KKK in history class. She shared with him that she had gone to high school with the son of a then-leader of one KKK chapter. A girl on the other side of the room overheard and yelled, “Your husband is in the KKK?!?” so we all laughed and talked about how that’s how rumors get started.

Today, she was talking about something with another boy that another girl on the other side of the room misunderstood and asked about. Then, things got out of control quickly.

Me: Remember: That’s how rumors get started.
Girl: Oh yeah, we talked about that before. Because isn’t it, like, your ex-husband who like started the KKK or something?
Other teacher: No! I graduated with a kid whose father was in the KKK.
Boy: I think it would be cool to be in the KKK.
Other teacher: What?!?
Boy: Yeah, you get those free clothes.
Girl 2: You mean the white robes they wear?
Boy: Yeah, I could like wear it for Halloween and it would be all authentic.
Me: Or, as a suggestion, you could shop Sears’ clearance for white sheets and avoid the hassle of actually having to join a hate group.
Boy: But Sears sheets aren’t authentic.
Girl 2: It seems like a lot to go through just for some sheets and a Halloween costume.
Me: Plus, no offense, but I don’t think the KKK would take you. They have standards for membership.
Girl 2: Yeah, white standards.
Boy: Wait, how do you know that they wouldn’t want me?
Me: OK, I’m not a paying member of the KKK, but they have historically been pretty up front with their membership requirements. They’re pretty uninterested in people who aren’t white. But you’re not the only one; the KKK wouldn’t take half the people in this school.
Girl [who had been on her phone most of the time]: Wait, you’re in the KKK???
Me: No! For crying out loud! People! Rumors get started when we don’t listen to all the facts!
Girl: Whew! I didn’t think it made sense for you to be in the KKK. I mean, it’s OK to do what you want and I don’t judge and all that, but Ms. H, you’d make a real shitty KKK member.
Me: Thanks. I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.

Sass

Boy: You could beat a black lady in a sass contest.
Me: Thanks, I think.
Boy: See? She’s already doing it to me.
Me: I just can’t decide if that’s a compliment or not.

Feeling: Thoughtful

The other day, a student told me a story that I’ve been running through over and over in my mind. She used to attend the middle school that I taught at a few years ago. In fact, we were there at the same time, but I never had her in class and didn’t know her otherwise. She said she hated that school, that she hated her teachers and she really hated the kids. They were mean, she said. They didn’t understand.

As an example, she told me about one day in geography. She described her teacher as “short and mean.” I knew who she meant, although I’d never thought of that teacher as mean. She said that one day she had already finished her geography assignment and so she was working on her math assignment so that she wouldn’t have to take it home that night because this was the time when her parents were fighting a lot, working up to their divorce, and they were close to being kicked out of the trailer they were living in (from there, they illegally squatted in a two bedroom house for a few months until they were eventually kicked out of there as well). She was surrounded by drugs and abuse and violence and instability. She was using self-sabotaging behaviors to cope with the overwhelming pain and negativity. And on this day when she was working on math in geography, her “short and mean” teacher came up to her and yelled at her for being off task.

The story continues with the girl getting upset and leaving class crying, all the while building more resentment and fear and anger and hopelessness.

As the adult hearing the story, I know that her teacher probably didn’t yell at her, and I know that there wasn’t likely the giant explosion featured in the story and I assume that probably the school and even more probably the teacher didn’t know what all was going on in her life at the time and how horrible she felt on a daily basis and why she would want to finish her math in geography class rather than take it home.

But.

I also know that perception is reality and that stress is one of the worst things a person can experience – in all its myriad forms. I also know that I’ve had some teacher moments that have not been shining examples of me at my best. And I know that we could all benefit from a little more kindness and understanding in the world – this girl and this teacher included.

So this story is just sitting with me for now. I think it’s good to have moments like this to reflect on as a reason to be a little more understanding, to question first, to assume the best, to allow people the most generous offering you can imagine.

Vocabulary Lesson

Set scene: Every day, I start every class with five or so minutes of silent writing time. Every. Day. I expect students to write silently. Well yesterday in one of my classes I had to ask a couple of girls to stop talking multiple times. So then since I was harassing them they got sassy. Obviously. Then, this:

Me: If you’re going to continue being insolent, I will ask you to separate and I will write a referral for each of you.
[Girl who I will from now on be calling “Red”]: Ex-cyuuuuse ME! But it is pronounced insubordinate! THANK you!
Me: No, the word I’m using is pronounced “insolent.” However, you are also being insubordinate. They are both good words to describe how you’re acting right now, and either will earn you another conversation with the vice principal if you keep it up.
Red: Ptchch. Whatever.

Support From Home

Right now, I have two parents routinely checking in on their kids in my class, emailing me with questions and concerns, and following up with me on missing assignments and naughty behaviors.

Two parents. Like, for two kids.

That’s more than I’ve had ever at one time at this school.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a large reason why in my house with my own children we don’t miss a single music performance, open house night, field trip, parent/teacher conference, baseball practice, soccer game, dance recital, tae kwondo ceremony, first day of school picture outside the school in new clothes, tooth fairy visit, spelling test study time, math homework assignment, or chance to discuss friend troubles.

Revisionist History

I had students do a mini research project on race in America today…and it brought me to this conversation with a student.

Me: What was the most interesting article you read?
Boy 1: Um…Well, this one was about these statues…
Me: Oh good! That’s a great topic for our discussion tomorrow. What did you think about it?
Boy 1: Well, I don’t really get it.
Me: Which part didn’t you get?
Boy 1: I don’t know what this means. [points to the paper]
Me: Confederate?
Boy 1: Yeah. I don’t know what that is.
Me: When we talk about the Confederacy, we’re talking about a historic region of the United States.
Boy 1: OK…
Me: Do you have any idea what region that would be?
Boy 1: Pittsburgh?
Boy 2: Naw dog! Baltimore! [in his semi-defense, we read an article about Baltimore last week]
Me: Nooooo…The Confederacy came about during a major military conflict…
Boy 1: The Great Depression?
Me: No. A major military conflict.
Boy 1: Like a war?
Me: Yes. What was the name of that war?
[Boy 1’s eyes grow wide; he sits with his mouth open.]
[Girl leans over and whispers Civil War.]
Boy 1: Oh, yeah, the Civil War.
Me: Yes, ohmygosh, the Civil War. And the Confederacy was one half of that conflict. Do you remember what two sides fought in the Civil War?
Boy 1: [hesitantly] Yeeeesss…
Me: So which side was the Confederacy? Remember, you’ve already suggested a couple of northern cities and I said no.
Boy 1: The…North…?
Me: No!
Boy 1: So….the…South…?
Me: Yes! The Civil War was fought between the northern states, the Union, and the southern states, or the Confederacy. And what were they fighting about?
Boy 1: Ssssssss….
Me: Yes! Say that word!
Boy 1: Slavery?
Me: Yes! The Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery. The northern states wanted to end it, but the southern states didn’t. Bonus question: Who was president during the Civil War?
Boy 2: [quickly and proud of himself] George Washington!
Boy 1: [immediately after, snapping his fingers] JFK!
Me: Oh! My! God! I’m going to have a seizure over here!
Boy 2: Hey, these are hard questions! How are we supposed to know this? Man, this is English class, not history!
Me: These aren’t “history” questions! These are common knowledge questions! You guys! Who was president during the Civil War?
Boy 2: [overhears another boy say the answer, but clearly only hears part of it] Abraham! It was Abraham! Abraham was president during the Civil War!
Me: That’s only his first name. What was Abraham’s last name? [the boys blink at me] You guys! Come on!
Boy 3: Abraham Lincoln.
Boys 1 & 2: Yeah! Abraham Lincoln! I’ve heard of him!
Me: [putting my head down on the desk] I’m dying inside. You know that, right? [looking at them again] Do you both have Ms. W for history right now? [they nod] I’m totally going to tell her about this.
Boy 1: Yeah, that’s probably a good idea. She should have a warning so she doesn’t die a little too.

Complaints from the Peanut Gallery

My students have been complaining. Shocker, I know. Today is the eighth day of school this year and, according to students, this hasn’t been much of an “English classroom” yet. It’s been more of a history classroom. So now about half of my students are wishing for Ms. F, the teacher down the hall, who isn’t even teaching eleventh grade this year but who the students are all telling me they’re going to talk to their counselors about to get their schedules changed. I told them to go ahead.

It’s funny to me, that my students, so many of whom say that they hate school and that what I have to teach them isn’t valuable to their lives, suddenly have these uber-political ideas about what an English classroom is “supposed” to be like. So then I find myself justifying what we’re doing – which, by the way, is all frontloading for A Raisin in the Sun, which we’ll start reading next week. When I teach this text, I use the essential question “What connections exist between the past and the present?” So I start by looking at the Civil Rights Movement and then we look at racial tension today. Throughout the text, we bounce between the 1950s and today, examining the roots of discrimination as well as the modern development of said discrimination.

My students so far have activated prior knowledge about the CRM quickly and without lecture or notes, they have analyzed primary texts, they have read a poem and written a literary analysis of said poem, they have moved through the peer revision and self-revision stages of the writing process, they have conducted a short research project and today they are preparing for a large group discussion that leans toward a Socratic seminar. In short: they have done a LOT and all of it is supported by ELA standards.

But yesterday I actually had a girl ask me, “So, is this, like, all we’ll be doing this quarter? I mean, we already talked about race in school a few years ago.”

Yes, honey, we will be having this conversation all quarter. Because one conversation about race a few years ago doesn’t make you enlightened and beyond all stereotypes and racist comments.

Ugh. I’m not getting bogged down by their complaining – not really – because I know that they’re teenagers and they complain and the teenagers who have the life circumstances that the teenagers at my school have probably complain a lot more than other people, so it’s not personal. I will keep doing what I’m doing because I know it’s good and right and, like I said, supported by the standards.

But it would be nice if they stopped.

Bleeding vs Blackface

I had students writing out a quick list of all the things they know about racial tension in America in the mid-1900s. You know, the Civil Rights Era. They worked in small groups on posters that we then hung up for discussion.

I’m walking around, doing the good teacher thing, checking on groups and whatnot. I go over to one group, read some of the stuff on their poster, then point to something they wrote about three from the bottom. “Menstrual shows?” I ask.

“Yeah,” this boy responds. “They were really popular for a long time. It was where white people painted their faces black and put on these plays where they made fun of Black people and stuff. They really just helped make a bunch of Black stereotypes.”

“Oh! Minstrel shows!” I said.

“Yeah, menstrual shows,” he replied.

I just left it.

And you know what? That poster’s been hanging in my room now for two days. No one. Has said. A thing.

End of Term

Tomorrow is the last day of school this year, so that means that today and tomorrow are finals. And that means that I’m seeing students I haven’t seen in a while. Because nothing says “last ditch effort” than showing up to take a final exam in a class that you haven’t attended all quarter. By the way, in case it isn’t clear, those students won’t be passing.

This has been a transformative year for me. I’ve gone from being sure that I need to quit my job to being sure that I’ll retire from teaching in another 25 years. I’ve also realized that there’s a little bit of love inside me for this job and for these kids. I never thought I went into teaching because of the people side of the job, but after ten years and some really incredible teacher friends sharing their version of what their passion looks and feels like, I’ve come to accept that yes, I really did want to teach because I wanted to work with people. One teacher friend told me that at the beginning of every year, she tells her students that she intends to love them, and that being together in the classroom every day and reading together and writing together are the glues that form that bond. I like that: I intend to love you. Love has always been a weird thing for me – difficult to recognize and accept and even difficult to pinpoint within myself. But this year I’m seeing it more and more, and in fact I’m seeing it enough that I’m even seeing it in my classroom.

I recently went to a graduation party for a student who I had in middle school. Do you remember that class four years ago? It was a tough year, but we made it through and now those kids are all going off to college. Anyway, the party was for Sweet Girl (read more about her here and here) and it was so, so wonderful to be invited to her party and to hear all about what her and a bunch of those other kids will be doing in the fall. In a strange way, it has been this class coming full circle that has helped me decide that I needed to stay in teaching. Maybe the events of that year were what gave me doubt in the first place, but it has definitely been those kids who have had the greatest impact not only on my decision not to leave, but also my realization that I’m in this for the love, for the heart, for the people. They are all where they are today because of me – not just academically, but emotionally as well. We processed together, healed together. And that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t loved them.

As I clean my desk and get ready for summer vacation, I find that I’m looking forward to next school year more than I have possibly ever. I’m going to enjoy my summer, spending time with my kids at the pool and taking day trips and reading books and laughing with friends, but I think next year is going to be great. I’ll be in the same room (remember, I moved schools two years ago, then changed rooms last summer), teaching the same thing (English 11!), and I have a leadership position working with teachers as we make some pretty drastic (for some) changes to our grading policies district-wide. Things will be good at home, too: my kids will be attending the same school all day for the first time ever, we’re getting a foreign exchange student from Spain, and we’re starting some really awesome remodeling projects. All in all, things are looking bright. And I’m grateful.

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